Shahid Mazhar Shabab ’20 and Uresa Ahmeti ’22 meet up at Usdan late night once a week, where they catch up on each other’s week, discuss how to conquer the first year workload, and reminisce about their upbringings and high school days.
The last point will seem familiar to many of you, as many of you may know someone from your high school, someone from the town over, or even someone from the street over (looking at you, New Yorkers). Perhaps you even have family members here, a sibling if you’re lucky (or unlucky, opinions may vary). For many of us here, finding comfort and some tacit sense of familiarity of our lives at home can be an endearing touch to what is a remarkable, but often daunting experience attending college.
But what happens when home is on the other side of the world? In Shabab’s case, he’s 7,787 miles away from home, hailing from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Uresa is not much different, proudly the first Kosovan student in Wesleyan’s history.
Most universities around the world attract students from their surrounding areas. While Wesleyan’s reputation has drawn a number of students from across the country, and even across the world, the statistics don’t lie. Of the members of the class of 2022, 34 percent hail from the Mid-Atlantic, 20 percent from New England, and 19 percent from the Western United States. As one moves further away from the familiar metropoles that Wesleyan students typically hail from, and indeed further away from the United States, these connections become few and far between. Some of you may know someone that grew up within a one-mile radius of you, while some of you may be the only person at Wesleyan from your country.
My point is, depending on where you are from and where you grew up, opportunities to indulge in the familiar aspects of home potentially erode, and home seemingly becomes a more physically and emotionally distant idea, especially for international students that aren’t in their country of origin. In the case of Shabab and Uresa, this conversation is especially pertinent.
But in the backdrop of Middletown, opportunities to find some familiarity to our past lives, even when most remnants of it are thousands of miles away, are not impossible. Finding a sense of community has the ability to manifest in different ways, and speaks to the flexibility of what is familiar.
Both Shabab and Uresa happened to attend each other’s sister schools, in this case, high schools that were part of a larger network known as the United World Colleges (UWC). UWC, which describes itself as a “global education movement,” operates 17 schools in 17 countries, giving scholarships to students from countries around the world, making each of these schools a proverbial mini United Nations. Although these 17 schools teach the same International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum and abide by the same founding principles, students of different constituent schools rarely meet each other. Shabab went to school on the rocky shores of Wales’ coast, Uresa in the Netherlands, in a small town within walking distance of Belgium and Germany.
But Shabab and Uresa’s friendship is certainly not uncommon amongst other former UWC students that happen to meet each other at university. Many American institutions have small UWC communities, where friendships start from a mutual attendance of this small community of schools. Indeed, Wesleyan has one as well, and the example of UWC is not an isolated one. Having attended the International School Bangkok (ISB), I have formed friendships at Wesleyan from a variety of connections to the familiar: ranging from attendance of schools around Asia, to striking up conversations about Thai food.
These small connections to one’s upbringing can be endearing, even if they only manage to scrape the surface. Moving to a new place and having to make new friends is always a daunting task. But for many international students here at Wesleyan, and surely at schools around the world, these tenuous, sometimes extremely tenuous connections provide a welcoming sense of familiarity to an inherently unfamiliar place. And whether it be knowing the odd mutual friend who happened to move around between countries, or reciting a couple of phrases in someone else’s native language, or doing a similar assignment for the IB program: these connections manifest in a plethora of ways, but all contribute to building a sense of home in a place so different from it.
The beauty in this is that in retreating to some aspects of the familiar and of the past, we ultimately meet extraordinary people that turn out to be very different. In a way, the idea of home molds around these new communities once we allow ourselves to overcome this hurdle of initial familiarity. Maybe home is not so far away after all. Maybe, after a bit of time, home also becomes Middletown.
Tobias Wertime is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.